Definition of Cross Country: Undefined
Sunday’s race was in honor and remembrance of Fred Lebow’s passing, who was a co-founder of the New York City Marathon. The course description is loosely as such – “Van Cortlandt Park’s famed running trails – dart up cinder hills, cruise along grassy flats, and hear the crunch of fallen leaves beneath your feet over 5K of rugged terrain.” Santiago, Matt, and I dabbled with the idea of going to check out the course the previous weekend, as Santiago was the only one who’d ever been there, but we ran out of time and we had him tell us about it. He remembered there were some hills. And the photo on the internet was of a slight incline at the beginning of the woods portion.
Continuing from the day before, our group met up with Fernando at around 10:30am. We had about an hour to register and warm up. I looked around and saw a huge field and a path up to some woods. One racer told us there were steps. I began to get a bit jittery (this time it wasn’t the GU) and did 2 strides with Santiago. He had an elaborate plan on how to make it through but after the strides, I found that I was either going to have to do my own thing, or jump on his back, ride him about 2K, jump off, kick him in the shin, and sprint to the end. Alas, I picked Option 1. We stretched a bit, got in the port-a-potty line, drank the last bit of water, and went to the start line.
And…the start line was a spray painted blue line across the grass field. What? Where is the technology that starts our D-tag? What’s that guy with the megaphone saying? We were all fussing about – me, I was trying to put on my nano – and wondering how the hell this was going to work when *CRACK!* A gun goes off and Santiago yells “Oh crap, it started!” (Not sure about the ‘crap’ part.) Everyone started running frantically and I just panicked and ran without saying anything to my group. Santiago was already yards ahead. I was still trying to set my GPS watch and of course, my compression sock decides it’s going to sag around my ankle for the first time ever. Gah!!! What a start to my first cross country!
Now for the play-by-play:
The Field: There I was, booking it across a field with a ton of other people. It was utter chaos. I was watching the ground with one eye so I wouldn’t break my ankle in a hole, and watched the other runners for an opening to get ahead with the other. I only had 5K to establish a good placing so I tried my best to get with a decent paced group. After the field, we rounded the corner onto a dirt ‘track’ so-to-speak, and it got narrow. I think I was in an ok grouping; turns out the mass start ends up with natural corralling of paces (but no horsies).
The Woods: After we looped back to where we started, it was up into the woods. Here was the incline I saw in the photo. Here were the steps that guy was talking about. It was pretty, with leaves and roots and logs everywhere. It was hard going up but doable. Cross country, this is what it’s all about.
The Back Hills: Through the woods I went. I was kind of losing some steam since there wasn’t much of an end to the incline. Finally, I passed over a highway overpass, and ended up back into the woods. This portion was called the Back Hills. But, I already ran through a hill. Apparently, I hadn’t seen anything yet. This is what I named post-race the “stairway to heaven.” It was just up and up and UP. More narrow, more steps, more steep. A lot of people had to stop running and start walking. It was practically impossible to keep any semblance of ‘running.’ I huffed and puffed with the hope that the next turn would lead to the downhill portion. I was disappointed over and over again. I could barely breathe and my legs were killing me. Once I looked up ahead and saw the runners ahead of me about 10 feet higher in elevation. I am pretty sure my eyeballs bugged out and my spleen fell out, but I ground down and chugged on. I was SO tempted to stop and walk, as more and more people did. But I couldn’t. Walking was not what all the early morning intervals were for. I knew I would be pissed if I gave in to the temptation not because it was a bad thing to do, because it wasn’t, but because it simply was a temptation and giving in would make me feel mentally weak when all my training was supposed to make me mentally strong. I berated myself for thinking it, prided myself in not doing it, and encouraged myself by thinking how it would all be over soon enough if I just kept at it. I honestly don’t think I was going faster than walking, but I was still making the ‘running’ motion and for me, that was damn well good enough.
From Back Hills to Cemetery Hill: After what seemed the longest and most torturous 10-11 minutes I have experienced in a LONG time (even worse than the 10 minutes rolls we had to do in taiko practice on Saturday!), I finally got to the downhill. It was deliriously steep and short. No wonder the name – clearly the bottom hill was named as such because all the crazy zombie runners who somehow summit the Back Hills simply roll straight down into a dead body pile (and making a hill). That’s sorta what I felt I was doing. I was pounding into the ground as I leapt over logs and steps onto potentially slippery leaves, holes, and roots, and my ankle was feeling it. I tried to switch up my landing ankle but sometimes I had no control – I could not stop myself much from simply flying down and hoping for the best, the momentum was too strong. I had a weird lady slapping me around, I suppose she was trying to pass me but I really had to do what was best for me and continue on my course. (Eventually she passed and then I passed her while she was walking up another random hill.)
The Final Stretch: Back across the overpass, there was one more downhill which was not very steep and just pure delight. I thought, “It’s over very soon!” I even spied Santiago up ahead! I rounded the corner to face the field and — WTF. Where was the finish line? Around another bend, I could see the red tent WAY FAR AHEAD. I was not almost done. I was Almost Almost Done. Crap. I kept going, thinking maybe I’d speed up since it was flat, but I soon found I had little to nothing left. I just tried not to slow down. I tried to reel in Santiago in bursts. But apparently he spied me behind him and he also started running faster. Down the final straightaway, I stopped looking for Santiago and just gave the last of my life to trying to make a decent finish.
The Finish Line: And it was a decent finish! Followed by stumbling past Santiago who was doubled over, clinging to the wire fence and gasping for breath before succumbing to my knees myself. Santiago finally said “Let’s sit!” and I said “Water!” and he went to sit and I grabbed us water. Once we finally could breathe properly, we smiled and congratulated each other. We did it! And it appeared like we both may have made under 25 minutes!!!
Next across the finish line was Santiago’s brother (he finished strong, in a full sprint, it was amazing!), and Santiago left me to go congratulate him. I waited before the finish line and had the great pleasure of cheering both Fernando and Matt down the final 10 meters. Both of them were smiling and happy. I am so proud of them. What a difference in their expressions from Santiago and my finish-face!
There was nothing fancy at the end of the race. There was no beer, no t-shirt, no bagels, no apples, no award ceremony. But there was a lot of pride. We all did it. We faced adversity, we faced near-death, but we made it through, injury-free, up the stairs to heaven, down head on to Cemetery Hill, and across the finish line.
And now I know what “cross country” means. I had thought that it meant ‘not on the road.’ But it means something more than that. It means you will be surrounded by nature and the sound of your struggling breath. It means you will face an intense physical challenge coupled with a psychological challenge. It means that you will be as traumatized as you will be excited. It means you will be damn hungry afterwards.
At the end of it all, I am extremely happy that we did not check the course ahead of time. I would have been scared to run fast to preserve my energy, and I would definitely have been slower. I do wish that we knew what the heck was going on before the race started. With the hindsight of my GPS recording, I ran off in a total panic and started off WAY too fast. Actually, I ended up running the fastest mile I have ever run for the 1st mile of the race (not withstanding the hurricane 1 mile record). That is not a good way to start a race longer than 1 mile. I also know that I was 100% out of steam by the end. I had nothing left to give to the race. There was no glorious sprint finish despite the fact that it was flat at the end. I was literally running on empty and did all I could do. Next time, I will know better what to expect for such types of racing and will plan better. And maybe actually beat Papi’s 5K time. Because right now, we’re TIED.
24 minutes, 47 seconds exactly.